Feature Message

21st Sunday After Pentecost — October 25, 2020                

October 23, 2020 by Jill Duffield

Deuteronomy 34:1-12; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-18; Matthew 22:34-46
Ordinary 30A; Proper 25

I used to feel sad for Moses when I read this story in Deuteronomy.

Moses, so faithful, so stalwart, does not get to enter the Promised Land. After all he endured, confronting Pharaoh, 40 years in the wilderness, grumbling people, idolatry, receiving the commandments, seeing God face to face, the list goes on, he does not set one foot in the land God swore to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Seems unfair, does it not? And yet, this year, when I read this familiar account of the Lord and Moses on Mount Nebo, I get a sense of relief. Somehow, this difficult year of so much tumult and pain, I feel as if Moses might see that vast expanse of land and think, “Whew, the next part of this journey is Joshua’s responsibility, not mine.” Moses, we are told, was 120 and not fading in vigor; perhaps the idea of passing the baton to Joshua felt right and good. The focus of our faithfulness is not success or a benchmark, but God. When we recognize this truth, our relationship to the One who calls us takes priority over the outcome of our efforts.

Hence, Paul can be bold to declare the gospel in the midst of much conflict in a context hostile to the good news of Jesus Christ. Approved by God and entrusted with the gospel, we are to speak not to please human beings, but to please our God. Outcome does not determine actions. God’s call and our commitment to the One who calls us moves us forward whether we enter the Promised Land, only see it on the horizon or remain in the wilderness another 40 years.

We attempt to love God and neighbor because we are commanded to do so, not because we expect our neighbor to respond in kind or thank us or be transformed by our love. This exchange in Matthew between the lawyer and Jesus reveals the limits of rhetorical debates. Those who wish to test Jesus know the answers to the questions they pose. They want only to trip Jesus up and get him arrested. They are all about intended outcome, manipulated results, feigned sincerity. Jesus, on the other hand, is all about embodied love and ongoing relationship — with God, with others, with creation. Jesus asks a question of his own about whose son is the Christ — knowing the answer, but silencing his critics at least for a while. Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, the very one to be loved and followed, but those religious authorities cannot recognize him given how tied they are to an outcome that favors them and secures their power.

We must not be too hard on those lawyers and leaders who come to test Jesus, who want to silence him at all costs, who are fixated with an outcome of their own making rather than a relationship with the divine that will take them to places they may well not want to go with people they would rather not acknowledge. We, too, protect our own interests, relish success, yearn for particular outcomes that make us look good and bolster our security and power. We do this in the church, too. We count and measure, compare and set goals. This, of course, has value when it helps keep us accountable to loving God and neighbor, proclaiming the good news and making disciples, but it becomes idolatrous when it becomes an end to itself, divorced from focusing on and following Jesus.

I listened to a devotional this morning that had a beautiful sung version of a quote from Teresa of Avila:

“Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing away:
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things
Whoever has God lacks nothing;
God alone suffices.”

It was soothing to hear this sentiment sung slowly and with skill. I wanted desperately to embrace the message, but truth be told, I found myself anxious. In the midst of a transition to a new call, my list of things that must get done feels long, and not all that holy, really. I am not doing evangelism in hostile Thessalonica, nor am I leading God’s chosen people through the desert to the Promised Land. No one, blessedly, is asking me trick questions in the hope of getting me in trouble with the authorities. I am, though, I hope, attempting to be faithful to God’s call and the Spirit’s leadings. Even so, it is easy to get caught up in outcomes, in the desire to be successful, to make it to the finish line and point to the people safely led across it. I want tangible evidence of work well done. And sometimes I get that evidence. Or at least I think I do, but who is to say, in the end, what bears good fruit in the long run. I suspect much of what I judge to be a good outcome may well fade and have no lasting impact, and some of what has felt like utter failure God may use to bring others closer to Christ.

This year may be a good year to let go, as much as we are able, of outcome, of getting to the finish line, entering some promised place and declaring victory. This year may be a very good year to focus closely on our relationships with God and one another, to do our best to love God and neighbor with all we’ve got on any given day, to seek to please God and no one else. We are in the wilderness still and I am not sure if I can see the end of it just yet. I know I’d like to get a glimpse of the other side of this long season, but in the meantime, it would be good to be gentle with everyone, with ourselves, as lovingly gentle as a nursing mother taking care of her own children, because we are all dear to God. There is so much we do not know and cannot know about what the outcome of this year, our efforts and our perceived success and failures will be. We can, however, be certain that God never changes. God alone suffices. God has called and sent us. God loves and will not leave us.

This week:

  1. How do you feel about God showing Moses the Promised Land but not letting him enter it?
  2. When have you been bold and declared the gospel no matter the challenges or conflict? What emboldened you?
  3. Have you ever been more concerned with outcomes rather than on being faithful? Why? What happened?
  4. What do you make of the question Jesus asks those trying to test him? Why does the question stump them? What is at stake in the question and the answer to this question?
  5. How do you ease your anxiety in these very anxious times? How can you help to ease the fears of others?
  6. Are there people with whom you are called to be gentle this week?
  1. ed? What happened? When have you tested God?
  2. Who are the people who are examples of faith to you? What about them makes them so?
  3. Repeatedly in Scripture God knows the hearts of people. Look at other passages where God intuits people’s motives. What do you learn about God from these passages? About people? (John 3:2, 1 Samuel 16:7, Matthew 12:15, Matthew 26:9-10)
  4. What is the point of the Pharisee’s question in this Matthew text? Why do they ask Jesus about paying taxes? Is there anything analogous to this question today?

What do you need to attend to today? Where do you feel God’s power